Ideas, Yea. Food Lines, Nay: MPI's Revamped World Education Congress

Hallia J. Baker, CMP, director of meetings and events, New York City's Center to Advance Palliative Care

Meetings Professionals International's reimagined World Education Congress concluded in Indianapolis on June 5, having welcomed about 2,200 industry attendees. The final number was almost 14 percent fewer people than the association welcomed last year to Las Vegas, but about 10 percent more than attended the 2016 event in Atlantic City.

In the year since WEC 2017, MPI had totally redesigned the event, taking over two exhibit halls in the Indiana Convention Center and creating color-coded villages -- themed Innovation, Leadership, Experiential Design and Social -- with small, medium and large areas for education; some larger sessions took place just outside the halls in nearby breakout rooms. "Pep rallies" were held to feature keynotes, present awards and make organization announcements.

Paul Van Deventer, MPI's president and CEO, was happy with the comments he received as he wandered through the event. "I get a lot of feedback, whether it's walking around the floor or through notes and texts," he told M&C. "The ratio of good to bad this year is over the top, about how excited people are, how much they enjoy the ideas, plus some practical advice. I'm loving it, I feel energized. My staff loves it. They enjoyed putting on something new."

He said the two things that stood out were how much people liked the energy in the pep rallies, and the creative way the education was presented. "Everyone was skeptical of this," said Van Deventer. "Would you have difficulty in traffic flow?  But the feedback has been over-the-top positive about the villages and the open floor."

This observation was echoed by Hallia J. Baker, CMP, director of meetings and events, New York City's Center to Advance Palliative Care: "I felt the new 'villages' format was very innovative and interesting," Baker said. "I commend MPI on restructuring everything to a nontraditional setup. It lent itself to a more inclusive style -- education and vendors all within close proximity of each other."

The event was not without its challenges, as with most conferences. Similar to the last year's Las Vegas WEC, when basketball legend Magic Johnson had to cancel his keynote, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, an Australian author and star of the Ted Talk, "What does my head scarf mean to you?," was unable to appear. She was denied entry into the United States in April for not having the correct visa, touching down in Minneapolis and subsequently being sent to Amsterdam. At the time, she was traveling to appear at the PEN World Voices festival in New York. Her spot at WEC 2018 was filled by Hayley Bernard, who spoke on unconscious bias.

Some networking events were held outside, with the opening reception in White River State Park behind the convention center featuring a country-fair feel. Lunch on June 3 was on the street outside the facility, where a number of food trucks were gathered. Lines for food were long there, and as Van Deventer noted, "The food truck experience has worked better on a smaller scale."

Putting a positive spin on the long wait times to get food, Baker said, "The off-site lunch options were fun and conducive for networking, despite the long lines. It did make you chat with your peers online, and that's a good thing." She wished for more visual guidance around the convention center beyond a 3-D map on the app. "It would have been extremely helpful if Paul Van Deventer videotaped himself doing a walk-through of every area of the villages, highlighting the various named areas and which session tracks would be in each, with insight as to how they developed the concept and the vision for how it would work," she said.

Baker also felt the suppliers who had bought small tables around the show were hidden in plain sight. "It was hard to determine where particular vendors were stationed. I did get that all tech-related companies were within the Innovation Village, but others seemed to be scattered all over the place. I attended the MPI education sessions in the center of the Villages, but it was a very open forum, which made it hard to hear at times and very limited on space."

Van Deventer has now been with the organization for five years, and says he loves the industry more every day. "I spent a career figuring out what I want to do next, and this is it," he said. "MPI is a great community. My learning curve will never end, but it's now around continuing to expand in what we can do. I try to be an advocate for the industry. I'm confident in the role I have, and I'm excited to continue to deliver in this role."